According to my Gran, once upon a time a woman could have a baby and there would be all sorts of fancy healers and midwives and lots of old tech available to fix the things that might go wrong. Having a baby didn’t even have to hurt which sound like heaven to some of the women that listened to her stories. Things still went wrong with birthings but they weren’t as likely to kill the woman or baby with the tech from before the Dark Days and the skills to use it. I have a hard time believing it. I’ve seen a lot of girls and women die or get so ripped up that the last thing they ever wanted to do again was have something to do with baby making, some of them my own girlhood friends.
There’s more than one disadvantage of getting married off young, size and inexperience are just two of the most obvious. It wasn’t unusual for the men in the Outlands to have been married a couple of different times because they lose a wife in childbirth and turn around to take another so that they’d have someone to take care of the children they still had. The Headman who had been married numerous times said, “Get ‘em at fourteen and they’ll last enough years that you won’t have to train a new one every few seasons.” I wasn’t the only one that hated him.
My Gran, Ma, and Docia’s gran used to help take care of the women in our town … at least so long as their men would let them be helped. Supposedly it is a sign of desirable womanliness to be able to go off in the bushes and have the baby by yourself. My Ma and Gran scraped up too many dead women that listened to their men and then went off and died because of it. And I tell you what, if a man had to pass a melon through his manly parts I betcha they’d have a little more care of the issues of childbirth and what they considered desirable or womanly.
As Winnie’s labor got bad and she started to have trouble I began to wonder if we were going to lose the Captain. I finally begged Jonah to bring me some of that high test rice lightning and I used it to lace a mug of rye coffee that I had sweetened with cow cream and honey.
One sip and he looked at me and said, “Am I so bad that you think you need to get me drunk?”
“It’s not that Captain. You just need to relax a bit. I just don’t want you to bust a vessel and then not be here when Winnie and that new baby need you.” He calmed down after that but he also drank that mug of mess I fixed him.
And I will tell you, though I’m not proud of it, that I just plain knocked Francine out. She was flitting about and causing Winnie to get nervous and upset and then acting like she was going to be sick or faint herself. I finally dosed her properly as her aunts had suggested and then all but tossed her across her bed fully clothed.
In truth, I could tell Rubine and Mrs. Wiley and the village midwife – a woman named Lollie Hudson – were beginning to get worried themselves. Winnie had been in labor a full turn of the sky … twenty-four hours. The Captain was beginning to lose hope and I was afraid that Winnie was as well. Then just when Rubine was ready to do what she could to ease Winnie’s passing the baby finally came unstuck and if Missus Hudson handn’t have been right there I swear that baby might of shot across the room with the flight it finally took out of its Ma’s birthing place.
The poor little thing had a bruised shoulder where it had gotten hung up but it was all the maneuvering that Rubine had been doing with Winnie’s legs and changing her position that finally unhooked the wee girl so that she could slide on out. She wasn’t blue but she sure was floppy; it took a while to get her to act like a baby ought to, she was as tuckered and breathless as her Ma.
The Captain took one look at Winnie and the baby and I swear his bones must have melted right along with his heart. Mrs. Wiley seemed to have seen a few men like this and had a chair ready to slide in under him before he hit the floor.
We were all tired and stepped lightly to keep from disturbing the new parents. Since Mrs. Wiley and Rubine were kept caring for Winnie and her needs for a few days, I took charge of the outdoor area.
I tried to keep things quiet near the house so I sent most of the children with a couple of older boys to act as guards in case there were more grizz or other hungry things in the forest to pick blackberries and blueberries. I told them to put their back into it and strip all the ripe berries each place they stopped. “And when you come back, you can take home a sack of goodies for your family.”
I almost had more helpers than I needed but because the children went in groups it was safer, more got done, and it made the kids feel like they were doing something for their family. They might not realize what a lesson that is but I do. I know I’m not very old and when I call myself a grown woman some snicker even though I’ve got a paper that says I’m married but the fact is I am grown, certainly more grown than many my age here in this settlement where the people have it safe enough that they can afford to be soft about some things. And since I am I can look back and see how important it was to me that I helped my Da, Ma, Gran, and Gramp do for our family. I am glad and proud that I don’t have to regret not having had a hand in our surviving for as long as we did. And when they were taken from me I can say it is through no fault of me not working to try and prevent it.
That’s how I see my life right now, or at least some of it. On my own my life doesn’t mean much. It could be my time to go and I wouldn’t leave much of a dent in the road for the next storm to fill in. To give my life some meaning, to make it worth my while to keep waking up in the mornings, I need to feel connected to something bigger. Some might be content to live out in the brush and alone. I met some like that that would come to the forge to have Gramp or Da fix something of theirs or trade something they found. Most of them were men but there were a few women as well though it was hard to tell the difference with a couple of them. But that isn’t me. That’s not the way God made me or Da raised me.
I have to be able to do for people. I know I’m prickly and I know I have walls and boundaries that I don’t like people to cross. I’ve got good honest reasons for the way I feel. But I do like to do for other people. As selfish as it may sound it isn’t so much to make them other folks feel better though that is part of it. I’m no saintly person. Doing for other people, being part of something bigger than my personal misery, makes me feel better. It makes me forget just how miserable and angry I could be if I let myself sit down and mope.
That is one of the reasons I have a hard time understanding Francine. She is her own worst enemy. I can understand that because I am too. But this moping and holding herself back from things, setting herself so far apart that there isn’t any connection at all … that I can’t understand. And I think over the last couple of days I understand Francine a little more … and at the same time a little less.
Working outside so much I missed all the little dramas that were going on inside. As much as I had learned in June about all the new foods I had never seen and didn’t know what to do with July was even more of that. The blackberries and the blueberries were gathered by the children and split between the estate and the families that loaned their kids for the work. Cherries continued to ripen and now that we had all the preserves and dried cherries we could handle some of the men were taking them and turning them into wine.
Winemaking used to be a big trade for the Corman family even before the Dark Days. The last few years they hadn’t done much of it except for the rice lightning but the men and women of the estate and village seemed happy to start it up again. Cherries, blackberries, blueberries, plums, and nectarines that were in excess of what were needed to feed folks were sweetened and set to ferment then later to be racked and bottled.
And this month we could add raspberries and a fruit that was like a nectarine only fuzzy that I was told was called a peach. I had a hard time biting that one because the fuzz just about made my skin want to crawl off; but, it tasted as good as the nectarines.
I was listening to Jonah report to the Captain that the first of the grapes were set to be harvested the next day when I noticed the new Da looking a little ragged around the edges. After Jonah had left I asked the Captain, “New baby keeping you up at night?”
I expected he would smile but instead he seemed to hunch up on himself a bit and then he asked if I would walk with him to the area they called the front lawn though why it was called that I haven’t a clue when it wasn’t anything but garden and fruit trees right up to where the drive went off into the forest. When we got there I saw that it wasn’t so much fatigue but worry that was plaguing the Captain.
“Fel, I do not wish to leave you with this … this …”
His lack of words more than anything told me how bad off he was. “Captain, just spit it out. We don’t have to stand on ceremony and you know it is awful hard to hurt my feelings.”
He gave me a small smile. “Yes and I appreciate it more than I can express, especially now.” He drew a breath and then straightened himself. “Fel, I have spoken with Rubine and she agrees with me that while it is very early for Winnie and the baby to be traveling, we need to get them to the fort and under Mona’s care.”
I was shocked. “Is something going wrong? Has … has she got childbed fever?”
“No,” he assured me. “It is not her physical health that I am currently concerned with but it may turn to that soon. I am rather afraid that our choice to support this scheme of the Council’s is turning on us.”
The only scheme I knew of involved me. “You mean I’m bringing trouble on you? Or has something gone wrong? Did them Lathrop cows say something?”
“No my Dear. You are bringing a great deal more than I ever imagined possible to this situation and all of it as far as I am concerned is good. This has more to do with the … the reality of the position we put you in.”
Shaking my head I said, “I’m still not understanding Captain. I haven’t complained, not after the first little bit anyway.”
“No you haven’t but Winnie and I are not completely inured to the fact that you are in a very difficult position. As much as I love the boy, I begin to see that Cor could do a great deal better than he has with Francine and not even because he sought it out. It is right under his nose and …”
Whoa. I had no intention of going there and pretending things that weren’t just to make myself out to look good. “Captain, Cor and I have worked things out between us. Please don’t go on so. It is what it is and we have both figured a way to live with it. It is what life has handed us. And frankly, not that I’m not appreciative that you are concerned for me and Cor, but why would that prey on your minds so?”
He put his hands behind his back and stared off to the far tree tops. “Fel, it is Francine. Winnie mentioned that you said we would understand your plight better if our child turned out to be a daughter. You could not possibly have known how right that would turn out to be. But still I believe that with the way you have chosen to handle it we could have … have been more at peace simply because we believed that is was an isolated incident of forcing that type of situation on someone.”
Quietly I asked, “And now you don’t?”
Just as quietly he responded, “I am as sure as I have ever been that it should be a personal choice between families and individuals, that a young woman … or man … should have the freedom to choose if that is the life for them. That neither family nor society should be able to force someone to participate, or not, in free will choice between the people involved and God. But even I admit that the women were not really given much of a choice during the Dark Days. Then it could be rationalized as a matter of survival. Today there are other options for those that care to grasp them.”
“You don’t care for the Lathrops’ way of doing things?”
“It is not my way, no. And unlike some others, so long as I am not asked to give up my freedoms in order to support their choices, I have no problem with them practicing their chosen lifestyle. What I do not care for is the direction that some of the Lathrops are beginning to take in making it, in essence, an evangelical process that they mean to see everyone living that lifestyle¸ perhaps even ‘for their own good’ as it happened during the Dark Days. They are using the spread of their lifestyle as a measure of their influence and to spread their family’s influence. That I cannot abide.”
“Well,” I said. “Isn’t that what having me here is all about? To stop that idea from coming true? Cor and I are the stop gap measure, the sacrifice, until the estate can get out of debt and this Council of yours can put other things into effect that finds the balance the way it used to be.”
“You are,” he agreed even though I could tell he didn’t like the word sacrifice at all. “And even more than in the beginning I believe that it will work. The problem is Winnie is …” He stopped, like he was bracing himself to say something he didn’t care to share. “Fel …” He sighed again then finally was able to say it aloud. “Francine has been … spending too much time with Winnie and the baby. We were all happy to see Francine once again engaged in what was taking place around her but what has thrilled her and made her happy has actually destroyed some of Winnie’s pleasure in having a little girl.”
Becoming disturbed by the turn of the conversation I asked, “Francine’s been talking? About what?”
“Her dream of the future of the Corman family. She honestly expects the estate to become a mimic of the Lathrop’s lifestyle. She goes on quite at length at how wonderful it is going to be for little Rachel to grow up and be part of a multiple wife family, that she will not be lonely, overburdened, and quite a few other things that I would find insulting if I didn’t know much of what she inadvertently complains about is more a function of her own behavior and choices rather than the fact that Cor does not have a multitude of other wives for her to interact with.”
I was silent for a moment, chewing on the facts that he had given me. I looked at him and said, “You know Francine isn’t happy. I don’t know why she isn’t happy. Maybe it is just that she is used to being in a big family and now she isn’t. I can kind of understand that; I miss my sisters even though we aren’t blood kin. But it is like she either won’t or can’t be happy and maybe because her life here is so different.”
The Captain shook his head. “Fel I will be quite blunt. I am no longer interested in making excuses for Francine. Making herself unhappy is one thing. Frightening my wife and upsetting her when she has just experienced a difficult birth is quite, quite another.”
“Winnie is that upset?”
“Rubine said that part of it is that some women sometimes take a while to return to a normal behavior pattern after the birth of a child. Winnie also has the added stressors of remembering the three babes that we lost, coming to terms with the successful birth of Rachel when she had been preparing herself for the worst, and that in addition to all of the issues of being a first time mother at her age when we had given up the idea of having a child of our own at all. But yes, Winnie is upset and Francine’s thoughtless dissertations on what she expects for our daughter’s future as if she will have no other options has caused my wife’s nerves to be so overset that she is beginning to have trouble sleeping which affects her ability to nurse which affects her view of her ability to be a mother. It is having a domino effect. Next will be Winnie’s health. While she is improving she is still fragile and Rubine is worried that there may be a tipping point which could decrease Winnie’s chances of a full recovery.”
The Captain was angry. He tried not to show just how angry but growing up around the kind of men that I had I’d learned to read the signs. “Well, how quick does Rubine think she can have Winnie and Rachel ready to travel? If she needs Mona, that’s exactly what we’ll get for her.”
He looked at me and asked, “You do realize we cannot leave the estate unattended and that we cannot take Francine with us?”
“Of course I do. I’m not helpless. Besides there is Jonah and Mrs. Wiley and they care what happens. They won’t just up and run away because you aren’t around Captain. And you know what I don’t know now I can learn.”
He nodded briskly, regaining his composure. “Which is what I told Winnie. We will be leaving tomorrow of a certainty now that I am sure that you can handle things here. I’ll make certain that weekly couriers are available for correspondence and I will handle any council issues directly while we reside at the fort. I will inform Francine tonight after dinner. I doubt it will be pleasant so you may wish to take your dinner in the cabin.”
Sounded good to me though I was a little surprised at just how bad it got. I found out the next morning when I came to help Mrs. Wiley with breakfast and saw a wash tub full of nearly a whole stack of the good dishes that were all smashed to pieces.
“Did the boys finally drop something?!”
Mrs. Wiley giving me a pinched and outraged look shook her head and said, “Miss Francie wasn’t … er … pleased fer the Captain ter say she couldn’t come with ‘em ter the fort or that theys wouldn’t drop her off at that Lathrop estate on their way.”
“Um … I’ve never been but it is my understanding that the Lathrop estate would be far out of the way of going between here and the fort.”
She sniffed. “Yer mayn’t have been there but yers not wrong.”
Mrs. Wiley was beating the eggs so hard I was sure they were going to be grateful to finally see the hot skillet so I backed away and went in search of the Captain to see if maybe the plates hadn’t been dropped on his first. Instead I met Rubine in the hall and she pulled me into an empty guest room. “From the look on your face you’ve heard.”
“I knew yesterday that you would be leaving and why. The only thing I know about last night is that there is a lot of broken dishes and Mrs. Wiley can be scary with a whisk.
Rubine put her hand on her mouth and looked away. Then she looked back and I saw the smile in her eyes. “I know it is no laughing matter but … after last night I tell you it is welcome to see it from a different angle.” She sighed and became serious once more. “Fel, I don’t envy you. There are things going on beneath the surface in this family that …”
She stopped and I picked it up. “We’ll get things set right. It just takes time. How is Francine this morning? Should …” I swallowed really not wanting to but knowing I couldn’t shirk my responsibilities. “Should I go see her?”
“Don’t bother. She became completely hysterical last night … we were leaving her, no one understood how hard it was, Cor had promised her, why couldn’t she go to the fort, why couldn’t she go to her aunts, and on and on … and I forced her to drink a sedative. As late as it was she will probably sleep until noon and we will be gone by then. I am not trained in such things but it seems to me that more than half of her behavior was self-induced.”
I shrugged, “I haven’t been able to figure it out either. But it isn’t your problem to work out. All I want you to do, if it is my place to want anything, is for you to see to Winnie and Rachel … and the Captain too as he seemed a little ragged around the edges yesterday … and get them to the fort.”
She gave me a hug, surprising me, and then said, “That I can do. I am sure the Captain will send you word once they’ve settled in. The Captain keeps rooms in the building he rents out to the college of midwifery so they’ll have lots of help close at hand should they need it and Mona will be right there as well.”
“Well that sounds like a good plan then.”
She gave me another look and said, “Take care. Perhaps you are the no nonsense influence than will be what Francine needs.”